How the bizarre duck’s foot pistol came into being

Until practicable revolver designs had been perfected in the 1830s, the only way to increase a gun’s firing rate was to give it multiple barrels that could either all fire at once or could be selected to fire at the user’s pleasure. The number of barrels was generally limited to a maximum of three, mainly due to weight considerations.  The pistol equivalent of the volley gun was the ‘duck’s foot pistol,’ which had four barrels mounted on a single breech plate.

This bizarre-looking firearm was given its name because the way that the barrels were mounted reminded people of a duck’s webbed foot. The barrels were splayed out in a fan shape of about 60 degrees to give its bullets a spread in the hope that they would hit multiple targets. It was a close-range anti-personnel weapon that was most effective when used against a crowd in a confined space.

The duck’s foot pistol was no more than a box-lock pocket pistol fitted with a broad breech plate in front of the priming pan. The barrels were screwed on to four separate breaches, all connected by vents to the priming pan. Each barrel was unscrewed to load the duck’s foot, and the small chamber in the breech was filled with powder. An oversized lead ball was placed in the small breech cup, and the barrel screwed back on. The process was repeated four times. The priming pan was filled with very fine powder, and the pistol was given a good shake to make it reach every barrel via the vents.

When the frizzen was closed, and the pistol cocked, it was ready to fire. When the trigger was pressed, the cock flew forward under the pressure of the mainspring, it struck sparks from the frizzen, and they ignited the priming powder. The resulting fire flashed through the vents, setting off the powder and propelling the bullets out of the barrels.

Duck’s foot pistols owed much of their effectiveness to psychology. Mobs were rarely armed with firearms, and their offensive capability was based on size, backed up with knives, cudgels, and cobblestones. Consequently, a man wielding an impressive multi-barrelled handgun had an intimidatory effect. There was always a chance that the same man armed with a single-shot pistol might miss; the duck’s foot was a different matter, and there were likely to be multiple casualties. Nobody wanted to be one of them.